Sunday, May 12, 2013

Drank No. 16: Fernet's moment

On the mini bar at the Wythe Hotel.

Fernet-Branca is having a moment. It's on cocktail menus everywhere, mixed in a raft of recent drinks. It's on industry night happy hour menus at bars in New York where it's known as "Fernet" (rhymes with "hairnet") and drunk by the shot, straight. The buzzy new restaurant Pearl and Ash has a Fernet-Branca ice cream sandwich on the dessert menu. The Wythe Hotel, Williamsburg Brooklyn's swankiest hotel — well, Brooklyn's only swanky hotel — offers a bottle in its mini bars and not much else.

If you've ever tasted it you may wonder what on earth is going on. If you haven't then let me suggest the flavor is what might happen if you took Jagermeister on a trip to Italy. And in some ways that explains its appeal. It's extreme, like Jagermeister, yet it's not Jagermeister, which most food industry insiders think jumped the shark years ago. It's an amaro, the herbal infused fortified wine family that includes Campari and Aperol, which means it's part of a growing back bar assortment that drink makers have been working with to improve their cocktails (where it does some of its best work). It's probably the most intensely flavored of all the Italian amari and that pedigree, given this is America and we do like extremes, also explains why we've gravitated so strongly towards its menthol orbit.

Traditionally, amari are served before or after the meal. If they're served before they tend to be lighter, fruitier, and often get ice and citrus added to the glass to further soften their impact. If they're served afterwards they tend to be richer and more medicinal, offered neat or with a single cube of ice. In Italy they're known as digestivi. Fernet-Branca definitely falls into the after-dinner camp, where it resembles the German Underberg, one of a long line of medeivally inspired European attempts to medicate overindulgence with alcohol. Thanks, Europe.

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